DARRINGTON — It’s not easy planning a community festival for a community shaken by tragedy.
“We came very close to canceling. It is still pretty emotional up here,” said Martha Rasmussen, one of the organizers of Darrington Day, May 31.
Ultimately, Rasmussen said, her group decided that going ahead with a day to celebrate local arts, music, heritage and civic accomplishment made more sense than scrapping it.
“I think having people come here would really give hope to Darrington,” she said. “People here need a pick-me-up.”
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In its third year, Darrington Day is just a tyke compared to several other local events, such as the internationally known Darrington Bluegrass Festival, preparing for its 38th annual appearance July 18-20.
Diana Morgan of the bluegrass festival, which annually draws 5,000 to 6,000 music lovers, sees two possibilities for her group’s event this year:
“Either it will be the best one we’ve ever had because people will want to come help Darrington, or it will be a bust,” she said. “I just don’t know which.”
Other events Darrington hosts include the Timberbowl Rodeo June 21 and 22, and the Summer Meltdown music festival Aug. 7-10.
The March 22 mudslide that killed 43 people, two of whom remain missing, brought pain and grief to the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River valley, including Darrington, Arlington and the community nearest the slide, Oso.
In Darrington, the disaster had the additional dimension of severing its main connection to the outside world, Highway 530.
But recent and expected events are boosting the valley’s efforts to draw visitors:
• Late last week, state transportation officials said people on their way to events in Darrington or elsewhere in the valley may use the one-lane, three-mile bypass route that goes around the slide, a passageway intended for those who live or have business connections in the area.
• And this week, a contract is to be awarded for a marketing campaign to promote the area and its assets. It will be financed through $150,000 Gov. Jay Inslee authorized from a state economic-development reserve, and which could also go toward park improvements, trailhead signs and route markers.
Wendy Becker, Snohomish County’s economic and cultural development manager, said a contract is to be awarded on Wednesday and a complete rollout of the campaign is set for no later than June 12.
The promotion could feature broadcast and print advertising, social media, billboards, fliers and other ways to reach potential visitors from the Seattle area, Skagit and Whatcom counties and British Columbia, according to bid information circulated by the Snohomish County Economic Alliance.
“This is fantastic,” said Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin. “I want people to know that Darrington is open for business, how beautiful a place it is and all the possibilities for recreation we have here.”
Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert concurred. “This is a very gracious gesture by the governor to help make sure visitors come to our area,” she said. “We don’t want people to be afraid to come here.”
Rankin said he hopes residents — not just of his town, but of Arlington and Oso as well — take part in local events, particularly this year.
“I think it could really help with the healing that all our communities have to go through,” he said.
A marketing push starting in June would come too late for Darrington Day.
But Rasmussen is encouraged by the loosened restrictions on the Highway 530 bypass, adding, “Without that road we would have been sunk.”
She has a continued concern that highway signs — such as one on Interstate 5 indicating that Highway 530 is closed at milepost 36 — will discourage visitors.
Travis Phelps, a spokesman for the state Transportation Department, said it’s not certain how, or whether, the signs along the highway corridor will change.
He said the one-lane bypass, a Seattle City Light road which the utility uses to reach transmission towers, continues to be regarded as providing local access to the valley.
Officials want to discourage through traffic, such as summertime motorists who use Highway 530 as a shortcut from the Seattle area to the North Cascades Highway.
Restrictions on who may drive the bypass route rely on public cooperation; no one is checking driver identification at the scene.
Traffic moves through the restricted zone one way at a time, following a pilot car that leaves the Darrington side of the route every hour on the hour, and the Arlington side every hour on the half-hour.
The road is narrow and steep in places. Vehicles travel at 10 mph, and no stopping is allowed.
Phelps said the bypass may be used by vehicles pulling trailers up to 24 feet long. Also allowed are freight trucks up to 33 feet long with business in Darrington.
Another route from the Puget Sound area to Darrington is the Mountain Loop Highway, a picturesque but primitive forest road with a 14-mile gravel section. It makes for a one-way trip of about 100 miles, slightly over two hours, from the Seattle area.
The Darrington Day event, Rasmussen said, is sponsored by the Darrington Area Business Association as a way to get the town’s summer visitor season off to an earlier start.
This year, in addition to enjoying live music in the park, the works of local artists and photographers at the Mansford Grange and other offerings, visitors will likely get a chance to drop by the Whiskey Ridge Brewing Co., expected to open soon in the former town hall.
Francine Hatley, who co-owns the brewery with her husband, Jack, said they’ll offer a sampling of five beers for $6 and invite customers to help name two of the brewery’s newest products, an IPA (India pale ale) and a blond ale.
A fundamental part of Darrington Day, Rasmussen said, is honoring the successes community members achieve by working together. This year’s event will note the saving of the Green Mountain forest lookout and the installation of a new cedar-shake roof on a 1916-vintage livery barn on the edge of town.
The previous year’s accomplishments included completing a 1.3-mile, wheelchair-accessible loop trail a few miles south of town along the Mountain Loop Highway.
Darrington Day will acknowledge the mudslide’s devastating impact in a repeating 15-minute slideshow at the United Methodist Church.
“It will be a quiet room, a place for people to reflect,” said Rasmussen. She lost a close friend in librarian Linda McPherson, whose body was the first to be recovered from the slide.
This year’s Timberbowl Rodeo will include a benefit evening concert June 21 to help with the community’s recovery from the slide, said Nick Bates, rodeo president.
Morgan, of the bluegrass festival, said she didn’t know any of the mudslide victims well but feels the enormity of the valley’s loss, particularly when she has driven the bypass route around the slide debris field.
“I’ve only been on it twice,” she said. “I cried all the way down and I cried all the way back.”
She hopes the bluegrass event will lift the community’s spirit.
“Music is always good for the soul,” she said.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.